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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Warning Democrats: Some Campaign Tactics Actually Lose Votes

Writing in The American Prospect, historian and grass-roots political organizer Lara Putnam offers a vitally important warning to all Democratic candidates this year based on the experience of the Conor Lamb campaign. She says:

Democratic Party leaders need to take a hard look at the incoherence of super-sizing last-minute, get-out-the-vote efforts, while failing to support the most basic structures for sustained local participation.

….Democratic strategists remain fixated on one-off voter “contacts,” with ever-more emphasis on digital tools like apps that use personal data to automate messaging. Such tools multiply the channels for connection-less contacts, transforming distant supporters’ enthusiasm into counterproductive spam, and distracting party leaders from the real organizational problems that need solving…

Putnam offers Lamb’s Pennsylvania race as example

… As Election Day neared, the Lamb campaign’s own GOTV surge collided with national attention. Progressive groups pushed digital voter contacting tools to distant volunteers, and these “contacts” metastasized. Since 501(c)3 nonprofit groups cannot coordinate with campaigns, the phone calls, texts, and canvassing teams run by outside groups hit the same people that the Lamb campaign itself was now re-contacting over and over.

….People began refusing to answer the phone. Volunteers got in an apology at best before doors slammed shut. A 93-year-old woman seemed to speak for the district as she fought to maintain her manners after my Election Day knock had dragged her in her walker all the way to the door. “Please. I can’t not answer the phone, it might be the doctor. But please, can’t you all just stop?” Every activist I know has stories of friends and neighbors they had to talk off the ledge, persuading them not to protest the onslaught by refusing to vote.

The problem of excessive, annoying phone messages is particularly acute this year because there has been an unrelated but absolutely mammoth increase in the volume of commercial robo-calls and fraudulent offers from call centers in other countries, to the extent that many people now refuse to answer any calls from unknown numbers.

In principle, door to door canvassing is a far more meaningful and productive method than phone calls but this generalization conceals a vitally important distinction — personal contact and persuasion by neighbors and people from a voters’ local community is indeed effective but hired, often out of town canvassers, reciting prepared scripts can be completely ineffective or even counterproductive.

Given the widely acknowledged importance of a good “ground game,” campaigns like to tout statistics that show they’re knocking on huge numbers of doors. These statistics can make their ground games sound quite substantial.

But, in reality, large “knock” numbers often conceal lackluster ground games. Why? Campaign operatives often rush through neighborhoods, hurrying to rack up impressive numbers of “knocks.” However, these hurried efforts often fail to reach most voters at all and entail only perfunctory interactions with the voters they do. Campaigns’ ground games can thus sound sizable in terms of “knocks” when they haven’t had any conversations with voters at all.

And, to actually affect voters, research shows that having an actual conversation is crucial. Canvassing seems to work best when voters who don’t care much about politics engage in a genuine conversation about why voting is important. So, when canvassers rush through scripted interactions, just trying to cram their message into voters’ minds, the impacts they leave are minimal–voters might as well have been sitting through a television ad. On the other hand, research has consistently found that authentic interpersonal exchanges usually have sizable impacts.

This suggests a picture that should frighten candidates, campaign managers, and donors alike. Even if field operatives have racked up millions of “door knocks,” when one looks under the hood of these operations, there often isn’t much reason to believe they’re having many quality conversations with voters at all.

The alternative Putnam suggests is a massive return to traditional precinct and neighborhood based organizing, both within and outside the Democratic Party. In the Lamb campaign unions and grass-roots groups inspired to activism by the 2016 election quickly filled this role:

Even before the [Lamb] campaign opened offices, grassroots groups began weekly canvasses: convening at a Panera cafe in one county, a leader’s living room in another, they shared “walk lists” of target voters with volunteers who fanned out to knock on doors and make the case for change. By late January, the campaign was logging 3,000 to 4,000 personal conversations each weekend. Some volunteers canvassed their own neighborhoods, leveraging prior personal ties. Others traveled to the same communities repeatedly, learning to appreciate local issues as voters opened doors and shared their thoughts.

From January to March, Independents’ support for Lamb nearly doubled (from 24 percent to 46 percent), and Trump voters (in this district, many of them registered Democrats and on canvassers’ walk lists) supporting Lamb nearly tripled (5 percent to 13 percent). This shift, even as Lamb was hammered with over $7 million in Republican attack ads, testifies to the impact of sustained grassroots and union outreach.

But Putnam notes that even the Lamb campaign itself missed a crucial opportunity:

The short-sightedness baked into current Democratic Party strategy means even when campaigns get the canvassing right, they miss the chance to build. Lamb volunteers had tens of thousands of conversations with potential voters in southwestern Pennsylvania this winter. None of those conversations ended with “There’s a group of us meeting monthly down at the library. We’d love to see you there,” unless someone went off-script. Literally.

The opportunity cost of failing to build participation is cast in stark relief by the enduring impact of those eras when hands-on politics did happen. Some grassroots activists invoke a father who was a union steward, or a mother who as Democratic committeewoman knew every voter in her precinct by name.

Putnam offers two specific recommendations:

  • The Democratic Party can get serious about opening doors for regular people to become active local members. The Democratic Party still has the bones of a membership organization. It has bylaws and rules for precinct representation, tax status and liability insurance, quorum requirements for the day when allies disagree–the infrastructure needed to forge diverse desires into sustained joint action.
  • National progressive groups can work to spread their outreach to voters long before Election Day, and ensure that each of those conversations includes an invitation to some local group that meets regularly.

The basic message is clear–candidates must try in every way possible to encourage and foment the growth of local community networks both inside and outside the Democratic Party even as they run for office. The reality must be faced: the vote this November will not be the end of the 2018 campaign; it will be the beginning of a long-term campaign to rebuild a local community progressive and Democratic infrastructure that will continue through 2020 and beyond.

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